Tag Archives: carrie imler

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s ‘Modern Masterpieces’

17 Mar

As I now embark on this odyssey to see and experience ballet across America, I have to begin the journey with some stories of my final day in Seattle, which was spent entirely with people I love, from breakfast to ballet, and it couldn’t have been any better. The opening night performance of ‘Modern Masterpieces’ proved to be one of the finest shows I have ever seen at Pacific Northwest Ballet, and I don’t think it was just because of the occasion, or a certain sentimentality in knowing that I wasn’t sure when I would get to see the company again—I truly thought they were magnificent, and the program ultimately defined what a remarkable identity PNB has for itself as a stronghold of contemporary ballet.

The litmus test was taking my friend Darcy as my date, who hadn’t attended a ballet since seeing a Swan Lake when she was but thirteen, and had never seen PNB despite moving to Seattle shortly after I did (though we met about a year and half ago). I was actually excited to re-introduce ballet to her in a radically different aesthetic, for she is no stranger to the arts, so I was confident she would find something interesting in the experience, or at least enjoy the free wine and chocolates in the press room. Despite being the daughter of a professional cellist and having her own bachelor’s degree in art history, she once told me that for her, dance was her final, unexplored frontier, and it became my mission to help her navigate this strange land. The first baby step was attending a dance festival produced by small, local modern dance companies, due to her preference for contemporary arts. However, I really wanted a chance to share something with her that was on a whole different level, and a PNB mixed repertory with choreography by Balanchine, PNB balletmaster Paul Gibson, Ulysses Dove, and Twyla Tharp was exactly what I needed—it’s impossible for ANYONE to walk away from that kind of program without liking at least one of the four ballets.

After some fawning over the sparkly curtain in McCaw Hall (and she’s not my only friend to have done so), we began our foray into contemporary ballet with Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco, choreographed to Johann Sebastian Bach’s ‘Double Violin Concerto in D minor’, and headlined by superstar Carla Körbes, and superhero Carrie Imler (the term “dynamic duo” a preposterous understatement). I had never seen Barocco before, though I of course knew of it, and figured the principal roles were cast to suit the dancers’ strengths. I took great pleasure in telling Darcy about how Carla has been regarded as one of, if not, the finest ballerina dancing in America, and that Carrie is a superhuman force of nature that is notorious for being able to do everything, because I wanted Darcy to know that we weren’t just watching pretty good ballet in Seattle—we were watching world class dancers who were highly esteemed even amongst their peers. Neither disappointed, and the corps de ballet delivered an exceptionally clean performance as well. I knew I’d like Barocco and I have to say that it included some of the most interesting patterns I’ve seen of Balanchine, and I especially loved the section where the corps link arms and slither around the principal male dancer, giving the appearance of a Gordian Knot when it turned out to be one of Balanchine’s most intricately woven feats of choreography, the effect of which is later echoed individually in a seemingly never-ending partnered promenade.

As if to have an answer to an opening set of ballerinas in white, Paul Gibson’s Mozart Pieces (to selections by Mozart) is a rare male corps de ballet piece, with dancers dressed in black. Though similar in structure, this piece had more room for individual expression, featuring an assortment of various solos that allowed for some breathability. A dazzling array of allegro work and some of the more rare steps alluded to Gibson’s knowledge of ballet pedagogy, but also left me feeling like the work was a bit academic. I was left wanting for more dynamics and phrasing—even an abstract work can have the shape of a narrative arc to it, and despite a tightly knit ensemble, I didn’t get a sense that certain groups of performers related to each other. Still, it was nicely performed and constructed well, and Benjamin Griffiths in particular was a joy to watch, his smile making it fully evident how much he enjoyed what he was doing on stage.

(L-R) Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancers Ezra Thomson, Ryan Cardea, Kyle Davis and Eric Hipolito Jr. in the premiere of Paul Gibson’s Mozart Pieces, presented by PNB as part of MODERN MASTERPIECES, March 15 – 24, 2013.  Photo © Angela Sterling.

(L-R) Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancers Ezra Thomson, Ryan Cardea, Kyle Davis and Eric Hipolito Jr. in the premiere of Paul Gibson’s Mozart Pieces (Photo © Angela Sterling)

After the first intermission, we were then treated to the starkness of Ulysses Dove’s Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven. Minimal in appearance with an emphasis on contrast (harsh spotlights and white unitards on a black stage), the choreography included some of the most interesting series of bodily pictures I have ever seen. Arvo Pärt’s haunting score (Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten) was barely more than brief, heart-rending string melodies and a single chime, but the effect is mesmerizing. I’d imagine dancing to that music is incredibly difficult because it’s so bare and repetitive, but Dove’s choreography succeeds in transfixing one’s attention the entire time. Six dancers in white engage in a series of vignettes, which Dove himself described as “a poetic monument over people I loved.” Though these pictures repeat and the music doesn’t offer highs and lows, I was shocked when at a certain point, the sextet dispersed into individual spotlights, and I just knew, “this is it—this is the end”, without any signal or build-up. It’s so spellbinding and engrossing you don’t realize how long you’ve spent in this other world until you quietly come to terms with the fact that you’ve seen everything you’re allowed. The opening night cast of Lesley Rausch, Maria Chapman, Rachel Foster, Seth Orza, Jerome Tisserand, and Andrew Bartee was PERFECT—and I really mean PERFECT. The chemistry of that ensemble was incredible, and had that magical magnetism that you can only feel and never describe.

Closing out the program was Twyla Tharp’s ‘In the Upper Room’, which could be described as a dance “experience” that includes an eclectic variety of dance styles, striped jumpsuits with red socks, and a smoke filled stage—but makes no sense in writing. Visually, however, it’s like a dream come true, with dancers materializing in and out of the haze, sometimes whimsically and at other times with reckless abandon (corps dancer Elizabeth Murphy in particular was on fire!). Coincidentally, Darcy loves Phillip Glass—like, honest to apple pie goodness, LOVES Phillip Glass, and her excitement over seeing a dance to his music was the bread and butter of the evening for her. It’s the same kind of giddiness I get from a Balanchine ballet to Tchaikovsky, and when she whispered to me “I LOVE PHILLIP GLASS!!!” for the third time as we “experienced” Upper Room, I had to marvel at this fact that two people with entirely different tastes in art, sat next to each other, saw the same thing, enjoyed (or didn’t enjoy—that’s okay too!) different things for different reasons, and most importantly, at the end of the day, were simply good friends. No fighting, no wars, not even callous “agreements to disagree”—we just had a fantastic time.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Jonathan Porretta in Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room (Photo © Angela Sterling)

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Jonathan Porretta in Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room (Photo © Angela Sterling)

A great deal of credit has to be given to Peter Boal for such fine programming in ‘Modern Masterpieces’. Just as the individual works typically contain their own episodic journey, the entire evening must as well, and ‘Masterpieces’ is wonderfully fulfilling artistically and psychologically. So a salute to Peter, because a lot of times artistic directors, like a President of the United States, get all the complaints when people are unhappy, and rarely any of the credit when things go well. It’s thanks to his vision that I’m happy to report Darcy was won over by seeing PNB, and wants to attend the ballet again, and may in fact, go see ‘Masterpieces’ a second time! Though she won’t replace me as a subscriber for season tickets (well, maybe for ‘Masterpieces’ she may quite literally replace me, as I gave my season ticket to her and her husband…who for the record, also loves Phillip Glass), I suppose I’ll be with her in spirit, because I’m sure I’ll tell her which programs to see and which may not be her cup of tea. Regardless, the fact that she even wants to go back is a victory for ballet and as I left Seattle the following morning, for a moment I reveled in a certain feeling that my work there was done.

PNB: Pre-Premiere

2 Nov

Pacific Northwest Ballet offers a number of great bonus goodies, one of them being a lecture presentation/dress rehearsal the day before opening night of every program run. Sometimes the lecture will be an interview with a choreographer, and notable guests in the past have included Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon (I should know—I was there, and ideally, you should know, because you may have read about it!). For the upcoming ‘All Premiere’ program, the esteemed guest was Professor Stephanie Jordan of the University of Roehampton, who is currently writing a book on Mark Morris and music. Karen Eliot, my teacher from Ohio State is a friend and admirer of Dr. Jordan’s work, and encouraged me to seek her out—so I did, which totally paid off because Dr. Jordan snuck me into orchestra level seating, which was technically for staff only.  Actually, she didn’t “sneak” me in because she asked “John” for permission so for the record, I was totally allowed to be there.

Before I go on, I’d like to mention that regular tickets for the rehearsal are seated in McCaw Hall’s dress circle for a STEAL at $30 (I paid less as a subscriber)—I honestly don’t know how PNB could make ballet more accessible to the public at a price like that, and it’s such an affordable option for people who wouldn’t typically purchase dress circle tickets. It really boggles my mind that some people can have such an elitist image of ballet, when PNB for example, has the aforementioned opportunity, and then for actual performances, they have a 2 for $25 deal for anyone age 25 or younger (which I’ve been told can even get orchestra level seating sometimes), plus affordable subscription packages. I pay roughly $25 a ticket and sit far away but McCaw Hall isn’t a gargantuan opera house—I find the view from my seat to be quite adequate. A nosebleed seat at McCaw Hall is not equivalent to say, a nosebleed seat at The Paramount where I saw Kristin Chenoweth on tour, for double the price! Which was totally worth it…but that also brings up another sore spot in that you hear the unspeakable prices people are willing to pay for concerts by their favorite pop stars, sporting events, musicals (Wicked is at the Paramount right now and my brain exploded when I thought to look at ticket prices), and then when they say ballet is “expensive,” it just makes me want to run down the aisles of an antique shop with a broomstick. Ballet IS an expensive art, but generally not for the audience, so myth dispelled…let’s get over it.

So back to Dr. Jordan’s lecture, as a precursor to the rehearsal, she divulged fascinating ideas on “musicality”—which I encapsulate with quotations because she said: “musicality is problematic, despite being a virtue.” She referred to the vagueness of the word “musicality” because there really are no set parameters to define it, and yet we can recognize it, oftentimes in our own way. When someone approached her afterwards to say that he never thought to look at dance in the manner she explained throughout the course of her lecture, she responded with something to the effect of saying that whatever his ideas of musicality were before she presented her findings were important too, and that now he simply has her ideas in addition to his own. What a marvelous thing to say! It’s a true reflection of her work because her current interests are in Morris’s choreography, who she said was sometimes criticized for “Mickey Mouse-ifying” music with visualizations that are too blatant (e.g., dancers stand on tip toes for high notes, crouch down for low notes, flutter their hands during trills), but she has no bias for one movement or another—they all have equal value, as do our abilities to observe it.

With that in mind, it was on to the dress rehearsal for PNB’s ‘All Premiere,’ which as the name indicates, is a program with four works making their world premieres. This is virtually unheard of in ballet circles, as directors like to present a good mix of repertory—familiar favorites, classics, contemporary, throw in a premiere…your basic smorgasbord. However, if you can imagine a buffet with all brand new dishes, then you’re really throwing the gauntlet down and issuing a challenge to the audience, and in this case there’s really nothing to guarantee any one audience grouping. You could do a program with Serenade and Dances at a Gathering and excite the Balanchine groupies, the Robbins groupies, ME—but those people already trust those works and know exactly what to expect. I suppose fans of Morris may have a general sense of his style but his rehearsals have been completely obscured from public view until today so even then there’s no promise of liking the newest piece. Not to mention for two of the four choreographers, Andrew Bartee and Margaret Mullin, this will be the first time they’ve created on the company, having previously choreographed on the professional division students. So for them, it’s a different beast and the entire program is ridiculously risky.

So, I guess the time has come for a spoiler warning…if you plan on seeing ‘All Premiere,’ you may as well go in with no expectations…after all, you’ve waited this long. However, for those of you who don’t have the great fortune of being able to go, I shall offer a few words:

Andrew Bartee’s arms that work is totally alien, and has the dancers in beige costumes constantly moving—very rarely is a body on stage still, and he provides contrast by stretching the movement tempos. The philosophy behind the piece is quite contemporary, and is definitely grounded in movement perhaps before music, which is generally the modern approach to dance (as opposed to being motivated by the music in ballet). His style ranges from little things to huge sweepers with his unique brand of fluidity. There’s also an integral set element of a wall of elastic bands, which looks a lot like the silhouette of a roller coaster, and offers an interesting deconstruction of line when paired with the movement. As a side note, it was kind of funny to see Bartee in one of the later pieces, do an ear-whacking grand battement—like a graduate of the Sylvie Guillem Academy of Bonelessness, you can imagine where he sources his material.

Next came Margaret Mullin’s Lost in Light, a ballet where the contrast was found in light and shadow, further emphasized by the black and gold costumes by her close friend, Alexis Mondragon. Lost in Light excites me because Mullin comes from a different sort of lineage than most dancers with PNB—having trained extensively with Amanda McKerrow, a repetiteur of Antony Tudor ballets, Mullin has developed a different voice, despite her daily work in one of many houses of Balanchine. Thus, there is an understated elegance to her choreography, and Lost in Light shimmers with emotion without being ostentatious. It’s a lovely ballet with beautiful lines and downplayed virtuosity. Corps dancer Chelsea Adomaitis especially stood out to me here—she just seemed to “get it” the most and there’s something very sincere and unpretentious about the way she dances that makes her glow.

Then came the long awaited first look at Mark Morris’s Kammermusik No.3 to Paul Hindemith’s music of the same name. Rehearsals were completely closed (they papered the studio windows to prevent spying), so this was in fact, the first look by any members of the general public. We get our first splash of color with dancers in black pants and magenta, ombre dyed tunics. Kammermusik employs a great deal of visualization as Dr. Jordan had discussed earlier, though in a great deal of codified ballet steps with contemporary moves that really pick up on Hindemith’s quirkiness. There are humorous moments, like trios of dancers entering the stage to briefly perform a leap before exiting immediately afterward, a striking and perhaps comedic visual, but entirely appropriate to the score. The structure is tightly knit, and it was interesting to hear Morris snapping his fingers in the audience, cluing us into what he hears specifically in the music. Not surprisingly, the outstanding-as-always Carrie Imler was on the money every time.

Closing out the program is Kiyon Gaines’s Sum Stravinsky, to Stravinsky’s ‘Dumbarton Oaks Concerto.’ A neoclassical ballet awash in ocean colored tutus, the ballet is as effervescent as Gaines himself is. The ballet is performed in three movements, an “Oreo-cookie” (or A-B-A) method of sandwiching a pas de deux with two ensemble pieces. It’s quick—lots of changes of direction and intricate phrasing, though the pas de deux is a wonderful adagio. Principal dancer Maria Chapman has those super arched feet that every dancer wants (except for the dancers that have them and dread hops on pointe), and it’s amazing how much she communicates in just walking at the very beginning of the pas de deux. Lesley Rausch was a veritable queen in the third movement, but again, Chelsea Adomaitis was a princess—somebody should give that girl a blue ribbon superstar award because she’s just wonderful.

The whole company looks eager and inspired, and I think ‘All Premiere’ takes the audience on an interesting journey of regression from contemporary to…less contemporary? It’s interesting because the first two pieces feature original scores, and then you have Hindemith and Stravinsky, and the choreography follows a similar suit—well, I’d say Mullin’s ballet is more classical than Morris’s, but the overall direction went from nebulous to structure in both music and choreography. The classicist in me of course wishes they would’ve taken it a step further with tiaras and Tchaikovsky, but these are all living, breathing artists and their work is all about embodying what’s relevant. For that alone, I can’t stress how utterly amazing ‘All Premiere’ is going to be these next two weeks. You can do whatever you want, but I’d go if I were you.

Want to know more about Andrew Bartee, Margaret Mullin, and Kiyon Gaines? Check. This. Out.

Long Overdue Review for DonQ

13 Feb

For the past two weekends, Alexei Ratmansky’s Don Quixote has been a major hit in Seattle. I attended the first Saturday evening performance, where the buzz was already apparent after Act I—with the exception of the bitter couple that left their orchestra level seats in front of some friends of mine during the first intermission (take a wild guess who was then “upgraded” from second tier to orchestra!). To be honest I probably could’ve agreed with those people about the ballet at one time in my life because DonQ isn’t exactly on my list of favorites. In fact, I rather despised it, with its bland (but irritatingly catchy) Minkus score and its hackneyed plot. Given, few things about ballet are logical, but DonQ pushed it to the extreme for me and when I watched the Baryshnikov staging on film, I was underwhelmed. However, I can honestly say that I enjoy a great deal of Ratmansky’s version and had a wonderful time watching Pacific Northwest Ballet be the one to premiere it in America.

One of the most difficult challenges for this production though was choosing which cast to see! A few of my favorite dancers were in the lead roles, like Carla Körbes, Carrie Imler, and Lucien Postlewaite, but of course never with each other! Ultimately, I decided to see Imler because I hadn’t seen her in a full-length story ballet before as I have with both Körbes and Postlewaite. Before all else, it has to be said that Imler is an absolute treasure in the ballet world—she’s not a string bean contortionist or a petite porcelain doll—no, she’s a throwback to what the women of ballet used to be, and embodies the qualities that made them legendary. She has a flair that conjures images of the Soviet greats from the 1960’s, combined with thoughtful acting, marvelous technique, and a huge jump (I’ve espied her in company class holding her own with the men, and in some cases her jumping was even better). In a nutshell, she’s old school, it’s glorious, and there aren’t enough dancers like her out there today.

Unfortunately, I felt like casting was an issue because there didn’t seem to be a suitable partner for Imler. Batkhurel Bold was cast as the Basilio to her Kitri, and he’s a big guy known for his jumping as well, but he’s not exactly praised for his acting abilities. I really hate to say this because I’ve read so many reviews of his dancing before where he’s just criticized out the wazoo for not being the most expressive actor…but it’s true. It’s not as though there’s only one way to play Basilio, but I do think that he’s a character that at the very least requires charisma. It’s for that reason alone that I found it disappointing that Jonathan Porretta was not cast as Basilio—Porretta is one of PNB’s most vivacious performers and had the audience in stitches as Kitri’s absurd, French poodle of a suitor Gamache. I suspect type casting (Porretta is openly gay), though it’s possible that because of that ridiculously unfair one-arm lift in Act I, that logistically, the assumption was that there wasn’t a partner short enough for him. It’s ironic because the one-arm lift proved to be problematic for Bold as well, and I’m surprised that it wasn’t adjusted to something that could be accomplished cleanly. The ease in which a movement is executed is first and foremost in ballet and any overhead lift would have achieved the same dramatic effect, especially because in that awkward open second position Kitri does in the air, her dress ends up obscuring Basilio’s arm anyway. Towards the end of this clip, you can see Nakamura/Postlewaite performing this beastly lift:

 

Before I go back to gushing over Imler, I’m so glad that PNB posted the above video so we could get a glimpse at the Nakamura/Postlewaite partnership too. I had a feeling Postlewaite would be a very charming Basilio, and Nakamura is deliciously feisty. I adored those two in Giselle, but remembered that Nakamura/Porretta were fantastic in Le Baiser de la Fée and it would have been nice to see them in DonQ together as well. In fact, Imler/Postlewaite were amazing in Black Swan Pas from that same program, and it makes me wish that principal casting for DonQ could have been the same. Porretta would have even been great as Espada too, but no such luck there either.

Speaking of Espada, Jerome Tisserand was absolutely brilliant. When he was performing you literally couldn’t look at anyone else because his presence was so commanding. It was quite an auspicious occasion too because while his promotion to soloist has been known of since the end of last year, Saturday night was when it was consecrated on stage, and Peter Boal had him take bows before the show, and dressed in full costume he was almost in character the way he just lifted his arms, invoking a strong desire to shout “¡Olé!” He was perfect, as was Maria Chapman as the Queen of the Dryads. Soft and elegant, she did a tour jeté during one of her solos where her upper body was such at ease she was gliding rather than jumping. In that same scene, Rachel Foster was delightful as Cupid (even though I still hate that stupid wig she has to wear). However, it was in this scene in particular, where the ease in which Imler dances was especially apparent. The thing about Imler is that she makes things look so deceptively easy—whether it’s the suspension in her jumps or the sureness of her balance, she’s never shifting around to find her footing or exerting herself in a series of leaps.

Also in Act III, where Kitri and Basilio unleash the bravura in the ubiquitous wedding pas de deux, Imler was on. She has some of the best chaînés turns I’ve ever seen, which is kind of funny because it’s an underrated step—it’s always the first turning movement dancers learn in ballet, which also makes it the one prone to a lot of bad habits. Not so with Imler, who tightens the line through her legs and spots with dynamism. Obviously, her thirty-two fouettés were perfect, weaving in consistent doubles throughout while opening and closing a fan, sneaking in a triple when the music changed after the first sixteen, but it was probably her manége, where she performed simple piqué turns in a circle where she was most impressive. For those unfamiliar with the piqué turn it’s a common step where a dancer basically steps to the side onto a straight leg into a pirouette (rather than bending their knees and springing up into one), and sometimes that step gets big enough to be a little jump, and sometimes if you’re Carrie Imler you practically leap into them with crazy speed, never wavering in the slightest. It almost felt like the nail in the coffin for Bold, who was already at a disadvantage because of his quiet personality, but to have Imler looking so effortless made his incredibly difficult jumps look like work. As grand as they were, the exertion in doing them was also apparent.

All in all, I really enjoyed myself and the show was definitely highlighted by Imler, Tisserand, Poretta, and the majority of the cast, with much credit due to the acting of Tom Skerritt as Don Quixote and the comedic flourishes of Allen Galli as Sancho Panza. It was brilliant to generate some publicity with the involvement of a mainstream actor, and hopefully appeal to new audiences. After the success of Giselle, it seems Seattle audiences are excited by the inclusion of yet another new production of a story ballet to the repertory. I, for one, rather like this trend!

PNB’s ‘Love Stories’…not feeling the love

29 Nov

I can’t believe it’s been almost two months since I’ve blogged. It’s embarrassing but this is what working two minimum wage jobs gets you (stay in school, kids!). Still, at the beginning of November I got to review PNB’s ‘Love Stories’ and about once a year I get the royal treatment from them with press tickets, complementary truffles, and wine (or in my case, San Pellegrino Aranciata—the last thing I need to be doing is falling asleep mid-performance!). Chocolates aside, I love having the opportunity to do this because I rarely get to sit at orchestra level, and with having my season tickets up in the second balcony, I get to catch a second performance and see the same ballet from vastly differing locations. This was most apparent in Le Baiser de la Fée, but before I get into the details you’re pretty much going to have to read the aforementioned semi-legitimate review over at SeattleDances because I’m not one to rehash something I’ve already written and it’s my blatant way of directing some more traffic to that site.

Under the assumption that you have now read it (because, why wouldn’t you?), I shall elaborate on some of my thoughts. First and foremost, I hope I made it clear that the programming was unimaginative, even though the dancers were amazing. There were at least two embittered audience members who knew that ‘Love Stories’ replaced the ‘All Robbins’ program that was supposed to feature Dances at a Gathering. Sitting a few rows behind Peter Boal, there may have also been plans for one to trip him as he came down the aisle, and the accomplice to pin him to the floor until our their demands were met, but in the interest of avoiding assault charges, logic prevailed. Regardless, ‘Love Stories’ definitely rubbed some sea salt into the wounds because it simply lacked continuity. A mixed bill of shorter ballets is great because there’s always “something for everyone” and it’s exciting to decide what appeals to you or not, or performing works all by one choreographer is interesting too because it offers many facets of one artist’s perspective of the world. However, “love” is much too broad a topic and even a little misleading—Robbins’s Afternoon of a Faun is not about love, and neither is the pas de deux between Siegfried and Odile. Even Le Baiser de la Fée was pushing it, since it didn’t really have a narrative. Baiser could have easily been interpreted as affection between two youths, children almost, and at that age, is it really love? I mean, the title of the program isn’t ‘Narcissism, Deception, Love Stories, and One Potential.’

I hate to say this because I love and respect PNB so much but this is the first time after moving to Seattle that I’ve been really disappointed with a program. Besides the fact that the dancers were totally hosed by not getting to develop roles completely, eavesdropping on conversations during the matinee revealed my worst fears to be true. Many didn’t “get” Faun and while art is of course subjective, there are times when the artist’s intent is important and Faun isn’t entirely abstract. However, as a part of ‘Love Stories,’ semantics played a role in herding the audience into preconceived notions—there were those who did in fact find Faun beautiful (and it is), but called it “utterly romantic.” My stomach really turned though even before the show began when I overheard someone say that ‘Love Stories’ extracted “just the best parts” of each ballet. I could have screamed in horror—what, really is the best part of Swan Lake? It’s impossible to answer that and it’s the same for Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette. I don’t even like the story and even I know that there are several pivotal moments throughout and my friend and I were both left wanting to see more after opening night. As for Sleeping Beauty…well, I’m not sure there’s a best part of that ballet because it’s so heinously long and chock full of divertissements, but there are definitely parts that are significantly more pleasing to watch than the Puss in Boots variation that beats you over the head with pas de chat. Not to mention, I was pleasantly surprised by the grandeur of PNB’s Sleeping Beauty and honestly, it does look like a beautiful production.

Perhaps worst of all is that inevitably, I bought into the idea of ‘Love Stories’ too because I was really excited to see Carrie Imler dance Odile. Of course, I would much rather seen her perform the whole ballet, but in a nutshell, Carrie Imler is a goddess who is ruminative, powerful, and has impeccable technique. She’s no banana-footed string bean and I like to think of her as a throwback to when ballet dancers were admired for a healthy balance of purity in technique and performance quality. Reading up on ballet history might surprise some by revealing how difficult some of the exercises were during certain eras, and even professional dancers today wouldn’t be able to do certain steps as they were described. If you recall PNB’s Works and Process presentation on Giselle, you may remember Peter Boal mentioning that Imler can do anything and a certain passage in the peasant pas de deux that was incredibly tricky and required superhuman fast feet, was one she made look completely natural. Her body awareness is extraordinary and she’s always on top of her leg and can literally stop on a dime, plus she has one hell of a lofty jump, and effortless bravura steps. When it came time for the ubiquitous fouettés, she wove doubles and triples tightly into the music and looked like she could have done even more had she chosen to. It saddens and upsets me that the inclusion of the Black Swan pas de deux cuts her off at the knees, never revealing to anyone the contrast between her Odette and Odile.

Imler in Peasant Pas de Deux (4:57, note how the original choreography in the first phrase emphasizes the crossing of the foot on the downbeat—I love that!)

Some footage of Imler in rehearsal for ‘Love Stories’ at 0:14 and 1:00 (take special note of how she finishes that manège, pirouetting on one leg and casually changing to the other on pointe like it’s nothing. I’m pretty sure that’s freakishly harder than it looks).

One of my other favorite dancers in the company, Jerome Tisserand shined in the Bluebird Pas de Deux from Sleeping Beauty, which he did for both performances I attended, as well as Faun. Since ‘Love Stories,’ Tisserand has been promoted to soloist, which I’ve been telling people since last year and it’s funny to me that audience members were talking about him as if he were up and coming when he’s really been that good all along. For me, the buzz was something of a bittersweet reminder that the audience was eating up exactly what they were being fed, that casting Tisserand in principal roles meant he was worthy of the promotion when he’s been long overdue based on his talent alone. Of course there are others in the audience who have noticed him as I have (and probably since he first arrived!) but it remains disheartening how passive some of the audience was in accepting what was given, never thinking to question any of it. In this instance, the programming didn’t take any risks, and a great deal of the audience chose not to think for themselves.

A snippet of Tisserand in Bluebird (begins at 1:25, note the ease and airiness of his arms at 1:57 for the brisé volé! In the video he partners Margaret Mullin, who I didn’t get to see in this, though I like her a lot)

Dark times I suppose and it’s something that weighs heavily on a lot of arts organizations in the current economic climate especially. Tamara Rojo was recently a part of a panel discussing the future of dance in the UK, though she spoke of ballet in America briefly and so accurately describes what the probable situation is and I feel it’s relevant to share her wisdom here:

Corporations and private funders don’t want to take risks. They want to take their friends to a very safe show that ends well, is not going to offend anybody, and is a great celebration of their economic success…in America, it has translated, in my opinion to the death of any artistic vision. There is no risk taking in the great ballet companies, there’s nothing new being created, it’s constantly Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet—and I love those ballets—I do them all the time myself, but unless we invest in new unknowns, there will be no future Romeo and Juliets, there will be no future Swan Lakes, there will be no future for the arts.

Those pieces of work survive for good reason and the audience goes to see them for very good reasons. However, it is my personal opinion that in an organization that has that [funding] cushion, you ought to take risks but the responsibility lies entirely on the artistic directors. It is not in the funding bodies, it is not for them to tell us how to spend that money and it’s very good that there’s an ‘arm’s length’ policy [for the Royal Ballet] where they don’t tell us how to spend that money so if we want to look at why these companies are not putting on more creative programs, it is actually a personal decision by an artistic director and that is the person that has to answer for the programming being seen.

Meanwhile, can I just point out that when Tamara said that there would be no future great classics, Sleeping Beauty was not mentioned again? Intentional—I’m sure of it!

All Aboard for ‘All Wheeldon’

10 Oct

Ahoy! I can’t believe I’ve neglected my blog for virtually all of September, and I’m not happy about it, but I shan’t dwell because I have a lot of words to cram into this one post on Pacific Northwest Ballet’s run of ‘All Wheeldon,’ a program that consisted solely of Christopher Wheeldon ballets. As those of you more obsessive readers know, I attended a preview with the man himself, where he discussed some of his works while the dancers rehearsed on stage, and wrote a synopsis for SeattleDances. There was much I couldn’t include, and luckily, I can be almost as loquacious as I want here, so here’s a little more to the story.

Life began for Christopher Wheeldon in England, where he described himself as very much a “Billy Elliot.” Stop. Okay, so I have to disagree with Mr. Wheeldon a little bit (Chris, if you’re on a first name basis), because I adore Billy Elliot and there’s more to Billy than simply being a male dancer in the UK; Billy faced a great deal of adversity in not having family who understood his curiosity in ballet. Wheeldon’s mother trained in dance (though she was forbidden to have a career in it because her father thought it inappropriate) and his father comes from a background in theatre (which is actually how his parents met), so a passion for the performing arts is not a foreign idea for his parents. Becoming a professional dancer is a major accomplishment, but it’s how Billy makes his father and brother understand him that is the triumph of the film…but I digress. The point is, Wheeldon’s formative and professional years were perhaps more sanctified. He recalled watching Sir Frederick Ashton as a student, working with two girls on a ballet in honor of the Queen’s birthday, a long, ashy cigarette in hand and after graduating from the Royal Ballet School, Wheeldon would also come face to face with Sir Kenneth MacMillan (I believe he mentioned that he was in the corps when MacMillan choreographed The Prince of the Pagodas). Incidentally, it was Peter who even brought up Ashton and MacMillan; let’s just say it required every ounce of discipline I had to NOT leap out of my chair and praise in jubilation, though the sad fact is the majority of the audience probably didn’t know much (if anything) about them. I get that some of the Ashton or MacMillan repertory is too much to ask for right now, but bits and pieces would be nice!

At any rate, Wheeldon has told the story of the Hoover vacuum countless times, and how he always has to retell it which is why I’m going to skip it; all you really need to know is that a vacuum cleaner got him to New York. Still recovering from an injury that kept him from competing for the Erik Bruhn Prize (where he was slated to perform the pas de deux from…The Dream! When he said it was his favorite and I just about died…can you imagine him as Oberon?), he merely sought to take class at NYCB. Somehow he was confused with some dancers auditioning for the company, and miraculously, Peter Martins offered him a contract. It worked out well for the lucky teenager, as he was quick to credit Balanchine as his greatest source of inspiration (beginning with a graduation performance of Valse Fantaisie) because his ballets taught him was a sense of structure and shape, because they would “never pull your eye the wrong way.” When Wheeldon joined NYCB, however, Jerome Robbins was still working with NYCB, and Wheeldon has some interesting comments regarding him and how he and Peter Boal were perhaps the last generation to put up with the idea of “success through intimidation and fear.” However, Robbins did impart emphasis on understanding who you are in a ballet, and encouraged dancers to be human.

The introduction ended with a sort of hodgepodge of information, like some general information about his production of Alice in Wonderland for the Royal Ballet, how it’s his largest production to date, with a new score, etc. and also some of his future plans, like NYCB performing DGV, which will be a first because NYCB has never imported a ballet made on another company before. Wheeldon will also expand his artistic pursuits a bit with a first time outing as a choreographer for a Broadway production. He’s busy, he’s sensational, and he had fascinating things to say about the ballets PNB performed.

First came the lovely Carousel, which is a romantic, light-hearted fantasy celebrating music by Richard Rogers, and originally intended for a gala program. In this piece, Wheeldon sought to use pure movement to create an atmosphere (with no budget!) so the costumes are simple, minimal set design, and just enough lighting to enhance the mood. The work definitely has that “carnival” feel, and a central pas de deux that plays out like an awkward first date. The pas de deux to me definitely had a little MacMillan in it (I definitely saw steps from Manon), and struck me as a game of cat and mouse between two people who had a romanticized idea of what love is, as if they’ve seen the movies and have preconceived notions but the truth is turning out to be not as interesting as the myth. It definitely has a dark cloud hanging over it, though still playful and lush as it is, and Wheeldon had high praise for the original cast of Damian Woetzel and Alexandra Ansanelli, complementing the bravura of the former and the great imagination of the latter. I saw Carla Körbes and Seth Orza in both rehearsal and performance, and I absolutely adored them in it—flawless casting! High praise too for Margaret Mullin, who I got to see up close during the lecture demonstration (my subscriber tickets are up in the balcony, so for general seating I beeline for the third row), really taking notice of her lovely épaulement and beautiful hands…she has a wonderful refinement that really stood out to me. Carousel was easily my favorite Wheeldon ballet because I’m a sappy romantic and it’s one of those pieces that you just have to smile at while watching, while getting just a dash of Busby Berkely-ish, oh-so-satisfying cinematic geometry.

Meanwhile, Polyphonia was the complete opposite. I found it funny that Wheeldon picked the music—a scattering of piano notes somehow composed into song by György Ligeti—while browsing at Tower Records. I don’t know why the image of Christopher Wheeldon at a retail music store, listening to samples of tracks on headphones is so endearing, but it is. With the score being so difficult to almost listen to (apparently when he played it for his dad, he almost drove off the road), I had a sinking feeling Polyphonia was going to disagree with me and while it wasn’t my favorite, I was surprised that I liked it more than I thought I would. It’s what Wheeldon called “a sketchbook,” the title meaning “multiple voices” and it depicts…not people, but beings? For me it was like staring through a microscope into a Petri dish, and seeing these curious creatures that were both alien and terrestrial…like deep-sea plankton. It’s rather bizarre but then you get these interesting pictures like the duet between two men that was a sort of “question and response,” with one dancer shadowing the other, it’s becomes something recognizable like a younger brother imitating his elder sibling and Polyphonia made many such shifts between the foreign and familiar that I found fascinating. Wheeldon himself said it took choreographing (and finishing!) the work to unlock the score’s mysteries, to find order in disorder, and create something not chaotic but mathematical (help us Dave Wilson!).

The last previewed work was After the Rain, or as I like to call it, “the Yoga Pas de Deux.” This piece was made for Jock Soto’s final season, an odyssey of partnering that often created the illusion of independent movement. There were times when the couple would reach for each other without making eye contact, and the danseuse just had to trust that her partner would lift her into the next step. For fans of Wendy Whelan, Wheeldon mentioned that she was visibly upset when told she would be dancing barefoot (he said “there may have been a tear”) but that After the Rain was a fascinating insight into her gentler side, beyond her fabulous technique. Meditative, tranquil, and often inviting a sense of loss, After the Rain achieved its purpose so perfectly the Seattle audience (who definitely loves their yoga!) responded to it very enthusiastically…even if I didn’t. I did yoga for a couple of years and I didn’t have the attention span for it then and certainly don’t now, so I didn’t find myself really interested. It’s not what I would call a “let down,” but when the theoretically strongest work is your least favorite, you’re sent on a different emotional roller coaster than the rest of the audience and that can be tricky to figure out.

Closing out the actual performance evening was Variations Sériuses, a comedic story ballet about a ballerina with a diva attitude who essentially gets in her own way and ends up being replaced by a younger dancer (et tu…Lily?). The neat thing about this piece is that the set is built to show a view from the wings as this fictitious ballet company rehearses and puts on a production of an unnamed ballet, which clues the audience into what it’s like backstage and of course, hamming it up a little. It has just enough melodrama to appeal to the general audience, though professional dancers and those familiar with the stage life will certainly derive a little extra here and there. The ballet within the ballet is a generic sort, with Romantic tutus and floral headwear, and the most heinously neon pink costumes you might ever see. American Ballet Theater principal David Hallberg once referred to their production of Theme and Variations as the “pink monster,” but this ballet-within-a-ballet should then be called the “pink behemoth.” We are talking about the most offensive to the eyes, highlighter pink imaginable, obviously intentional because we’d be fools if we believed dancers enjoyed every costume they have to wear (and just in case you were wondering…they don’t). Laced with hilarity, I quite enjoyed Variations Sériuses, and really enjoyed Carrie Imler as the Ballerina. It’s a role in which a dancer could easily flail around and indulge in too much melodrama, but she always gives intelligent performances and trust me when I say she has some mean (literally) echappés!

Overall, I’ve enjoyed this crash course in Christopher Wheeldon’s work, having only seen a couple of pieces by Corella Ballet prior to PNB’s program. I did kind of yearn for something bigger, as there is something pleasing about having that big, symphonic ending (as ubiquitous as it may be), but you don’t curate a Chagall exhibit and spray the paintings with glitter because there isn’t enough “razzle-dazzle.” In these instances one must respect the creator’s perspective and when it comes to Wheeldon, I found every piece to be tasteful, coherent, and wonderfully made—a marvelous start to the performance season!

Here are some excerpts of the lecture/demonstration with Wheeldon, courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s YouTube channel:

Now, it’s personal…

4 Aug

I’ve been avoiding writing something about Pacific Northwest Ballet’s DVD of A Midsummer Night’s Dream because I really felt like it was only yesterday that I reviewed a live performance by them…but that was in April, which was longer ago than I thought. First, I have to say that whoever made it happen so that the Seattle Public Library finally obtained some copies of PNB’s production—thank you! I don’t know if my “suggestions” had any impact on the library’s fairly recent acquisition of it, but I’ll let my ego inflate a la Oberon. If you’ve read here long enough, you may recall that I have watched the La Scala production with Alessandra Ferri and Roberto Bolle, and in retrospect, that was a mistake! La Scala’s Midsummer is quite bland in comparison, hindered greatly by unimaginative sets that suck the charm out of the entire ballet. Although Ferri and Bolle are beautiful dancers, I don’t know that their performances really enhanced the production either. Having heard Francia Russell say that she didn’t like working with La Scala (she was not however, the one to restage Midsummer for them), as well as Lady Deborah MacMillan’s difficulties in working with them (a controversy over compromising the creativity of the set designers, coincidentally), La Scala seems to have a lot of woes they need to sort out for some of their ballets.

Anyway, the point is La Scala’s Midsummer didn’t really leave a great impression, but I’m learning to love Balanchine’s ballet, which is quite unusual for me because my opinions can be rather stubborn. I actually watched about three-fourths of PNB’s DVD before falling asleep at my computer, so the next day I watched only Act II, which proved to be a much more fulfilling experience, since it is rather disconnected from the story anyway. In fact, I’ll go as far as saying I love Act II now, and for me, the Divertissement Pas de Deux was the highlight of the DVD (though I still love Oberon’s Scherzo in Act I). Watching the DVD with fresh eyes also provided a revelation—I had seen the Divertissement Pas before! Back in my golden years as a newly minted student of dance at Ohio State University, I took “Dance 161: Dance and Theatre, 1945 to Present” with Annie Kloppenberg and Ashley Thorndike (who I have to take a moment to thank, because they told me from the beginning that I had a gift as a dance writer), and in that class one of the video clips we watched was this very Divertissement Pas. I remember now because Annie specifically pointed out to us the partnered cabrioles, and asked us to think about what we thought the meaning of that movement was. I wish I could remember what I thought, because at that time, like ninety-nine percent of the class, I had no idea what a cabriole was!

Louise Nadeau and Olivier Wevers in the Divertissement Pas de Deux (Photo ©Angela Sterling)

My personal journey with Midsummer is proving to be a strange one with some odd twists of fate. I’m now positive that the Divertissement Pas was in fact my first experience in watching Balanchine choreography. In the film, the pas is danced by Louise Nadeau and Olivier Wevers, the latter of whom I would eventually meet and see perform it live ten years later in one of his farewell performances. In addition to Wevers, Jeff Stanton (Demetrius), Ariana Lallone (Hippolyta), and Batkhurel Bold (Theseus) would reprise the same roles from they did at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in the performance I saw at McCaw Hall. There were a lot of other goodies too, like Kaori Nakamura as Butterfly (she did the Divertissement Pas with Wevers in April), and a handful of dancers I spotted in the corps like Carrie Imler, Maria Chapman, and Mara Vinson went on to become principal dancers (though Vinson retired from PNB last year). On top of that, several of the dancers like Paul Gibson, Timothy Lynch, Julie Tobiason, and Alexandra Dickson are people I’ve taken class from! It’s probably one of the most amazing things about the ballet world, how traditions are spread and passed from one to another and in a way, I almost feel connected to Midsummer now, even as an outlier on this vast and intricate web. Or maybe I’m just getting mushy and sentimental, but I definitely have a newfound nostalgia for the Divertissement Pas in particular and thus I’ve come to understand more that ballet survives when we can make the experience of viewing it personal, and that as a ballet student, even recreational, I would do well to remember the legacy that is passed on via teaching in the studio.

Overall, it’s nice DVD with some of PNB’s most legendary ballerinas, like the lovely Nadeau, Lallone, and of course Patricia Barker as Titania. I only moved to Seattle after Barker retired, and have only heard things—which I find to be true. She really is not the most emotive dancer via facial expressions, but she has some of the longest lines I’ve ever seen, and has an uncanny ability to move like water and contrast that fluidity with real attack to certain steps. It’s all a matter of taste though, as I’m the type of audience member who zeroes in on faces before anything else (then feet I suppose), so it’s important to see appropriate animation in a dancer’s face and eyes and I didn’t get that from Barker all the time…it was there in some moments and in others a little vacant. However, it could be considered a more enigmatic approach and one way to get an audience to see how you express yourself through your body. Barker was partnered by Paul Gibson as Oberon, who I felt gave a well-rounded performance, with sharp technique and fortitude in the mime. He’s not one blessed with long limbs, a freakish turning ability, or the highest jumps but he executes everything clarity and belief, so it’s a virtually faultless performance. The company as a whole looked so well rehearsed that it would be easy to sit back and enjoy—were it not for some artistic issues with the story. I know it’s sacrilege, but for me Midsummer contains a great deal of beautiful dancing that delights, but can’t do much more than that because it’s simply stretched too thin to elicit a deeper, emotional investment (Divertissement Pas aside).

Still, I learned my lesson though—they say you can’t judge a book by its cover and I should really know better than to judge a ballet by a first viewing even if it’s guaranteed that visceral reactions to any number of ballets will ensure I’ll make the same mistakes again in the future, and won’t be able to find some personal meaning each time, which is okay too because conviction in oneself is also a good thing. So check it out from your library! If they don’t have it, complain like I did–results require putting the idea out there in the first place!

Or at the very least, check out the trailer:

Dance Critics Association Conference: A crash course in reconstruction

17 Jun

Wow—a busy week! Ever since the Dance Critics Association conference, it feels like it’s been full steam ahead. Prior to last weekend, I was going to blog something about Deborah Jowitt leaving the Village Voice, but seeing as how she was at the conference, I’m just going to tie in a few thoughts I had into one big entry, rather than bore you with a thousand words of inane rambling on the subject (and believe me, I could go on and on!). I have also been working quite a bit at my new job at a bagel deli, where I sell carbs and people eat them, and though it’s not mentally exhausting it is somewhat physically so, and you know you’ve had a long day on your feet when standing on relevé feels good because it relieves pressure on your heels! I’ve been rummaging through a few backburner topics in my head, but every time I sat down to write, I would end up asleep at the computer. So I’m still getting used to the new schedule (which sometimes includes the horror of getting up early) but today my friends, is a day off!

The topic of this year’s DCA conference was reconstruction, in conjunction with Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of Giselle (but more on that later). I didn’t get to attend the whole conference, and was just a last minute volunteer but I was present on Saturday, for much of the discussion on reconstruction itself. The keynote speaker was Dr. Ann Hutchinson Guest, notation guru who knows more about the subject of reconstructing dances than the average mind can handle. It’s funny how a lot of what she talked about seemed relevant to things I learned at Ohio State (coincidentally, one of the examples she used to discuss differences in steps according to notation was indeed La Cachucha, a piece I saw at an MFA concert) and I chuckled to myself when she discussed how ballet training today is about superficial pictures, but the motivation for a movement is never a problem for a modern dancer. I actually had the opportunity to learn a ballet from notation at OSU (which was actually for six female dancers on pointe, but that’s a long story), and the thing she said that struck me the most was how reconstruction from notation is more important than video because the latter makes it so that you have to understand the movement. I always knew the importance of notation but couldn’t express why until she so artfully put it into words—the process of learning notation is an investigation of movement, and my own interpretation is that dancing from notation requires that creative process we like to call “imagination.”

The first panel discussion of the day was with Peter Boal, Doug Fullington, and Marian Smith, the trio behind PNB’s staging of Giselle. Peter opened with a general spiel, about how he wanted a unique production for the company, how Doug told him of Marian’s proximity, that it was something of a last minute decision (I seem to recall a mixed bill that it replaced), and that people are calling it the “new/old Giselle.” Now that sounds familiar…oh wait, I was one of those people! Hey…look at that legitimate writer…that’s me too! Gloating aside, there was a lot of interesting discussion on not only negotiating three minds at work, but also three documents to work with, and what the ideal creation would be. Most of the choreography came from the Stepanov, and the French scores provided the pantomime, with the usual interpolations of “artistic liberties” (at times, none of the scores provided anything of use). Much of the more difficult choreography was tested on Carrie Imler, allegro extraordinaire, who could basically do all of it though the rest of the company had some trouble, hence the adjustments. Though many fascinating questions were asked, I’m glad someone mentioned the use of humor, in the lost scenes and Smith said that the originator of the role of the old man was a world-renowned comic mime, so it is fully intended to be a moment of comic relief. She feels lightening of the mood gives the story gravity, though I still disagree here—people were surprised by humor in Giselle, though I think Act I has always had traces of it, and it’s the contrast between the two acts that gives it gravity, not an unnecessary augmentation of the storyline…but, this is strictly a matter of opinion.

There was a writing workshop during lunch that I only observed because I hadn’t been a part of the conference the previous day, and that was followed by another panel on reconstruction means, which unfortunately, by that time I was mentally checking out. Sitting through panels is a lot like lecture-based learning, and the whole experience reminded me of being in school again, something I’m not really looking to return to. Plus, it doesn’t matter how much I’ve slept, or what I’ve done for the day, I am always sleepy around two o’clock, so my notes for this panel are woefully barren. Just remember…preservation makes us human and every dancer inherits an embodied legacy.

Finding my second wind for the last panel of the day, several ballet repetiteurs shared their thoughts on reconstruction for living or deceased choreographers. Though several ballet choreographers—from lesser known to titans like Tudor and Balanchine—were discussed, I’m just going to summarize some of the Balanchine tidbits, mostly coming from Francia Russell (one of the founding co-directors of PNB). Russell indeed danced for NYCB years ago, and I suppose a lot like Carrie Imler, Balanchine tested a lot of movement on Russell, even if the performances themselves went to other dancers. Russell actually retired pretty early, but stayed with NYCB as ballet mistress, and in fact only stages ballets that she watched Balanchine produce during her tenure, as well as ballets she herself has danced. Though she doesn’t claim to have the definitive version of anything, she does say she stages things very closely to the way he wanted them (in that sense, her work is kind of like the Australia of ballet—broke away from the mother continent and remained unchanged while Balanchine’s choreography in New York evolved under different circumstances). Though she tries not to impose her personal tastes, there have been occasions where she’ll make executive decisions like when she stages Ballet Imperial, it’s mostly NYCB material but there is also choreography that is seen with the Royal Ballet (Balanchine went overseas to stage it, working closely with Moira Shearer). Also, I believe it was in regards to the finale of Divertimento No.15, she said Balanchine changed the ending for PBS’s Dance in America to accommodate the set, but she loves the original finale. Apparently, NYCB’s Divertimento is starting to look a lot like Who Cares?, and never having seen the former I don’t know what that means but it was fun to hear her opinions on several matters, like which companies were great to work with and which weren’t *coughLa Scalacough*.

The second topic of this panel posed the question of how critics should approach reconstructive work, and while this wasn’t really discussed in detail, Russell voiced some frustrations in wondering why critics feel the need to personally attack dancers, when they are so willingly giving their all. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that Deborah Jowitt nodded her head in agreement, as her refusal to write negative reviews led to her leaving the Village Voice. I found it funny that in a room full of critics, who so willingly put forth their ideas during other panels to the point where questions weren’t really asked during the Q&A sessions and it was more like a debate with statements of opinion, nobody really had much to say on the matter. Well, I am of the mind of Jowitt, who I saw speak and perform a sort of dance-theatre solo at OSU, and I believe that dance truly fascinates her, which is why she is able to write about it in the way she does. She genuinely finds the art of movement captivating at all levels, which is why she doesn’t have anything negative to say about the effort put forth by performers. I admire her so much for it, and aspire to be like her, though for me it requires some effort. We all know I can go on and on about Ashton (and in an upcoming entry, I will), but when ballet moves away from the styles I favor the most, I have a harder time discussing it. However, I think when a passion is authentic, you find a way, which leads me to believe that some critics may be more in love with the search for perfection than they are ballet itself…and for some reason society seems to think if you can nitpick flaws in a performance, you must know what you’re talking about. Rest assured, I don’t think that way.

On that note, I encourage you to read my latest and first post-DCA review on SeattleDances, in which I reviewed PNB’s Season Encore performance. I am interested to hear if you think my voice has changed, or is still the same old me, and ideally, WILDLY and authentically in love with ballet!

The Prince and the Pauper

27 Mar

This is not a post, as the title may suggest, on reasons why Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper should be a ballet (though the idea has merit).  It is how I would describe my recent experiences with seeing Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Contemporary 4.  I guess I earned my balletomane stripes these past couple of weeks, because I’ve finally graduated to that level of crazy where one sees the same ballet more than once, in order to see different casts.  Although contemporary ballets are often not the best medium for really identifying individual performers, Alexei’s Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH has enough narrative such that different casts for the two performances I saw made a huge difference in temperament.  However, this goes beyond just seeing the same dances more than once—I went opening night as a dance reviewer for SeattleDances (read that review here), and attended the final show (a Sunday matinee) up in the nosebleed seats thanks to my season ticket as a subscriber.

So what were the differences?  Well, getting to go as a reviewer was pretty rad.  I received two complementary tickets at orchestra level (my first time seeing the company from there I might add), quite close to where Ratmansky himself was seated for the PNB premiere of his work.  I also got to hang out in the pressroom where there were free drinks and chocolates (I had three sips of wine which was enough to burn my face off) and had a chance to talk to some of the administrative people of PNB who were floating around and socializing.  I found out that this here blog is something of a known entity amongst them and in fact, the media relations guy Gary recognized me when I picked up my tickets and told me that some of my entries get forwarded throughout.  This is simultaneously insanely awesome and alarming; I can’t tell you how grateful I am that people out there are reading because it’s one of the most rewarding things about being a writer but this means there’s a possibility I could say something that will get me into trouble.  So, I would like to take a moment to remind everyone that we live in a country where people are innocent until proven guilty…

Obviously, there was no special treatment for the Sunday matinee, which in many ways is more indicative of the real dance writer…you know, the majority of us who don’t make a living off of our creative output.  I often laugh at the stereotype of the “starving artist,” the struggling dancer in New York, waiting tables to pay an exorbitant amount for rent, surviving on ketchup packets and tap water as they channel the difficulty of their lives through the medium of dance, because that means the people who write about them should have an even sadder existence.  Perhaps it’s true to a certain extent…dance writing is a labor of love, but just as the “struggling dancer” takes a “by any means necessary” approach, we also do as we do because quite frankly, we have things to say.  I don’t mind not having the glamour of orchestra level seating and such (though I’ll take what I can get!) because sitting in the balcony has its perks too.  As a most casual mortal, I can wear jeans up there and nobody’s going to say anything (and believe me, I wasn’t the only one…this is Seattle after all).  Also, some ballets look even more amazing with a near bird’s eye view.  Paul Gibson’s Piano Dance was one that I appreciated more from higher up.  Pacific and Concerto DSCH were just as lovely (though I liked being closer for DSCH) and no seat in the house was going to help me enjoy Place a Chill.

Yes, it’s true…I’m obviously opinionated just like anyone else and I didn’t like Marco Goecke’s Place a Chill.  I gave it a fair review in SeattleDances because I respect its value as art; Goecke certainly has a concept and a clear vision, executed incredibly well by the performers…it just wasn’t my thing.  This is probably the biggest challenge for dance writers, is setting aside one’s ego and figuring out a way to be critical without making it personal.  It requires a lot of sorting, and a lot of what I didn’t like about the piece was indeed personal, with the only nugget of reasonable criticism being the fact that I did feel like the piece was too long.  On the one hand, Camille Saint-Saëns’s Cello Concerto No.1 in A minor is a beautiful piece of music not to be mangled with edits, but with the movement being so stylized and rather stationary, there’s only so much one can take of quick twitchiness before getting bored.  I of course had the same problems watching the piece both times, but recognizing what I like to see in my favorite ballets has helped me figure out what criticism is personal and what isn’t.

For example, a pattern amongst my favorite ballets is that they’re all very pure…simple, musical, and pristine, tending to side with lightheartedness and the plain old “pretty.”  The reason being, my approach to beauty is quite escapist.  Sure, a landscape of a beach is like a generic postcard photo, but I love them because I can imagine escaping into them.  Even a ballet like La Sylphide which ends tragically, still takes place in a fantastical world of delight and magic so it’s an escape from the reality we know.  One does not really escape into Place a Chill—it can draw you in, but it’s not a world I want to live in and that’s why I can’t say I really enjoyed it.  However, lambasting the work solely based on my personal issues would have been unfair—valid as an opinion sure, but as a legitimate art critique?  Boo-boo.  Especially considering the strong audience response to Place a Chill at both performances I attended, I was clearly in the minority.  Many people were completely fascinated by it…I was too busy being resistant.

Meanwhile, as for Concerto DSCH, I enjoyed both casts.  I think opening night may have had more energy, and with Carla Körbes and Carrie Imler (two of my favorites in the company) in the principal roles, it’s hard not to feel like that was my dream cast.  In the matinee, Lucien Postlewaite and Jerome Tisserand were more memorable in the trio for me, capturing a more youthful boyishness that went well with the character of Ratmansky’s choreography.  A second viewing of DSCH delivered as I thought it would…what did I say in my review? “Sure to reveal a myriad of individual company members’ personalities in different casts.”  Now, I’m not prophetic, but sometimes my intuition rocks (although in retrospect, the above quote is a statement of the obvious, no?).

Pacific Northwest Ballet in Ratmansky's effervescent Concerto DSCH. So...you can kind of see Carla in the center there, and a lot of people had a vehement hatred of the sage green. What say you? (Photo ©Angela Sterling)

‘Tis the season

25 Dec

Wonderful news leaping ladies and merry gentlemen, by virtue of your most gracious support I’ve made it to the final voting round of the Dance Advantage Top Dance Blogs of 2010 contest, in both my category and in the running for overall top blog!  There is no better gift to me this Christmas than the blessings I have received from you the readers, and hope that the love continues in your reading of this blog and perhaps a vote or two in a couple of days…but before that, what is the meaning of Christmas?  Gifts.  I have no religious affiliations therefore the holiday means spending time with loved ones and exchanging gifts for me, and I feel no shame in that.  Believe me when I say I don’t buy into commercialism, but I enjoy bestowing tokens of gratitude on those I care about and letting them know how valuable they are to me.  The phrase “it’s the thought that counts” is no joke.  Meanwhile, thinking funny thoughts, here’s my gift to you, brought to you by my odd, but distinct brand of humor:

Merry Marcelo Christmas! -Steve

With “gifts” in mind, I decided to treat myself to a gift I had bought for myself a few weeks ago, which is the Royal Ballet production of Giselle, starring Alina Cojocaru in the title role and Johan Kobborg as Albrecht.  Having expanded my ballet DVD collection to a substantial three, Giselle was put in queue because of Swan Lake month and I felt today would be a good day for the initial viewing because I feel “the gift” is sort of a theme in the ballet.  The only other Giselle I’ve seen is the American Ballet Theater made-for-film version with Carla Fracci and Erik Bruhn (read my review), much of which I’ve forgotten because I have the memory of a platypus but having never seen a version on stage, in front of an audience, I was excited to watch this new one as if seeing the ballet for the first time.  It’s a good time to re-familiarize myself with Giselle because Pacific Northwest Ballet will be doing a studio presentation on their production in the first week of January, discussing the Stepanov notation score they used to construct their staging.  I’m not going to lie…I’m worried for PNB because historically, they have not had Romantic era ballets in their repertory and its style is so specific (and anti-Balanchine—let us not forget who coined the term “Gisellitis!”), but they seem to be taking a thoughtful, academic approach.  They have their notation guy, a coach and it’s also nice to see that the company is willing to take a huge risk with Seattle audiences by doing something different.  Besides, Carla Körbes (who I predicted early on would be a Giselle to watch) and the fabulous Carrie Imler will be dancing in the studio preview, which I should also note for the New Yorkers, will be presented at the Guggenheim on January 10th, so mark your calendars!

Anyway, back to the Royal Ballet, their production is staged by Sir Peter Wright, with additional choreography by him, supplementing the typical “Petipa after Jean Coralli/Jules Perrot” meat and potatoes.  After enjoying Wright’s production of Swan Lake, I unsurprisingly enjoyed his Giselle too, in which he seemed to make it relatable to a modern audience.  For example, rather than have Giselle die of a broken heart, she actually stabs herself with Albrecht’s sword.  With society being less imaginative than that of two hundred years ago, it’s a decision that makes sense because the last thing a choreographer wants is for some little anachronism to be that one thing the audience refuses to accept, thus putting a damper on the whole experience.  I found the sets delightfully realistic, albeit rather dark…I know it’s supposed to have a luminous, “enchanted forest” feel, but it could have done with just a little more lighting.   However, I loved that the Myrtha and Wilis entered with chiffon veils to simple bourée steps…the effect is mesmerizingly ghostly.

The reason why I feel this ballet is about gifts should be fairly obvious; in Act I Giselle gives the gift of her heart to Albrecht and in Act II her gift is forgiveness by saving his life.  What is less apparent is the gift of remorse—come again?  In this sense, it is perhaps relevant to bring up that in German, “gift” means poison and Giselle arguably poisons Albrecht with remorse, thus destroying him as we see him throughout the ballet (a rather sleazy, borderline salacious cad) and thus liberating him of his insincerity.  Whether Albrecht lives the rest of his days a wiser man is unknown to us, but I can see Wright’s Giselle as sort of empowering for women—while the suicide is unfortunately melodramatic, it’s a step above death by a broken heart because it puts Giselle in control of her own fate, and then it’s Albrecht’s fate in Act II that she calls the shots on.  Also, we see a formidable villain in Myrtha, though in a way, I actually came to understand her more through Marianela Nuñez’s interpretation of the character.  Throughout her opening solo, I couldn’t help but feel that Nuñez’s Myrtha wasn’t merely a man-hater, but also a woman scorned welcoming Giselle to her sisterhood of Wilis and as a result, not entirely evil.  Nuñez brought a wonderful depth to the character, beyond the icy carapace most dancers of the role will opt for.

Alina Cojocaru’s dancing of Giselle is a gift in itself, and what I love about both her and Johan Kobborg is that neither is perhaps the typical (or expected) ballet body.  Coco is quite tiny, far from the amazons seen in the Russian ranks or Balanchine America and Koko doesn’t have the long limbs seen in the male counterparts (and particularly the French—I swear the dancers with the Paris Opera Ballet must be giants).  However, both Coco and Koko have beautifully trained physiques, wonderful proportions and superior technique, conducive to what is exactly needed for Romantic ballet; she with the lithe torso and he with the barrage of batterie, thanks to his training with the Royal Danish Ballet, which can be considered the last bastion of true Romantic ballet, given their Bournonville tradition.  Don’t get me wrong, many companies can dance Bournonville and Giselle in stunning fashion; when it comes to the Danish, it’s ingrained into their method while other dancers must learn or be coached in the style later in their careers.  At any rate, I even think Alina’s face makes for the perfect Giselle because her facial features seem to lend themselves to a near permanent look of timid worry…

Alina is 3rd from the right...smile, girlfriend! (and yes, Johan is giving Marcelo bunny ears) Photo ©Ilya Kuznetsov

That face, combined with her infinite lightness made for a wonderful partnership, which highlighted Koko’s jumps and acting ability in waves of pure chemistry.  When Myrtha beckons Albrecht to do a series of entrechat six, I literally gasped at Koko’s ballon (translation: height) and superb technique.  Spectacular beats of the legs require more than just fluttering feet, but a rebound—meaning, once the legs beat, the more they can separate in the air before beating again, the loftier the effect.  I felt the whole production was spot on, with the only exception being Martin Harvey’s Hilarion, who was a little over the top for my tastes.  At moments he had some bug-eyed looks (and I’ve had this problem before in watching Ethan Stiefel) which might be less distracting in a live performance, but for me, is a one-way ticket to looking like a lunatic.  I guess it’s my pet peeve in watching ballet, but the crazy eyes never work for me and really just make dancers look insane.  Hilarion is temperamental and maybe even a little chivalrous, but not demented.

Overall, this is a fantastic Giselle, a must for the ballet library and in case you didn’t get what you wanted for Christmas, you won’t regret buying this DVD for yourself.  In the meantime, I leave you with Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg in the iconic Act II pas de deux, to entertain your thoughts until your purchase arrives:

Sharp as a Tharp

16 Nov

I interrupt this program with an unscheduled but entirely expected aside, a review of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s All Tharp program.  I feel the need to treasure these waning moments of sanity, for I am succumbing to the incurable disease of swan-psychosis.  However, far from visions of lakefaring waterfowl, All Tharp presented a trio of mastermind Twyla Tharp’s works: Opus 111, Afternoon Ball and Waterbaby Bagatelles (okay, it’s possible that last one may have had something to do with aquatic creatures, but not necessarily bird imagery).  Obviously the run of shows is already over, but it’s still worth talking about.

I actually had a tough time with yanking this review out of my head though and I’m not entirely sure why.  After the show I felt speechless and not in the life-altering kind of way…just at a loss for words, even though I knew they were there.  This was weird for me, a perpetual chatterbox whose kindergarten teacher (among others) said I talk too much.  Luckily, I took some notes for myself and I’m good but it was a slightly alarming moment.  Like I like to do, I feel it pertinent to give a brief synopsis of my experiences with Twyla Tharp choreography…I did minor in dance after all.  So the breakdown is, I’ve seen Deuce Coupe on film from my first dance history class so I have some fuzzy images but nothing too clear and of course I’ve seen Hair, excerpts of which were also shown in class.  Interestingly, I have seen Sinatra Suite live, as performed by good ole’ BalletMet in Columbus.  Unfortunately, my oddly brilliant photographic memory happens to be very selective and completely unpredictable and I don’t recall Sinatra Suite at all.  It obviously didn’t make a huge impact on me, but to give you an example of my freakish memory (which I find is actually quite ordinary amongst dance patrons) I distinctly remember a piece called Maquillage, which had female dancers in chiffon dresses of sunset hues (orange, pink, lilac, mauve, etc.) dancing to “the diamond commercial song,” which needs to be known as the Allegretto from Karl Jenkins’ Palladio suite.

Where was I…Tharp, right.  Well, there was definite impact this time around (though I can never guarantee for how long that will last) but I really enjoyed the first piece, Opus 111.  My favorite of the night, it was an arcadian display of buoyancy, like a festive summer gathering.  Set to Johannes Brahms’s String Quartet No.2 in G major, Op. 111, it was by far the most musically linked of the three pieces and just a constant barrage of movement.  The style of it was very free—lots of swinging and drifting without a single pause—a visual feast with almost no relief for the senses.  I couldn’t believe how the dance just kept going and going…the pace never let up, a characteristic shared in the other works as well.  I would almost liken Tharp’s choreography to stream of consciousness but not in an improvisational sense.  When it comes to stream of consciousness, although we may not necessarily form coherent paragraphs, we still think in terms of fully formed words and phrases which was the same in Opus 111; codified steps and organized phrases of movement were what materialized on stage.  On Saturday night, the softness of the piece was perfect on the lovely Carla Körbes but the dance also revealed rare moments of contrast, like when Carrie Imler came charging out of the blocks in a series of châinés turns.  I think the word is “attacked,” and it was almost feral in comparison (in the good way).

Meanwhile, Afternoon Ball was a sometimes sad, sometimes awkwardly funny commentary on the plight of the homeless.  There were three main characters: a sassy drunkard, a ferocious prostie (that’s Australian for “prostitute”) and a forlorn junkie.  The dancing was quite aggressive, to this maddening, minimalist violin score that would build ever so slightly and go nowhere.  It’s a somewhat similar concept that is heard in Maurice ravel’s famous Bolero (which I hate, by the way) in that a constant rhythm is the driving force.  There were moments of whimsy between the three hobos, but you have to wonder if chuckling at a homeless drunkard falling over is…appropriate.  However, what was most intriguing in the way they danced with each other is that these were people who were stripped of the choice to form relationships with other people…in many ways, they could only dance with other paupers out of default, because nobody else would give them the time of day.  This was further emphasized by the introduction of an elite couple, dressed in formal clothing and doing a very formal waltzy pas de deux with the lady on pointe.  The rich couple never acknowledged the hobo trio, who sort of danced around them, in particular the junkie, who is later claimed by an angel of death, shivering as the ghostly figure in white embraced him.  Beautifully danced, Afternoon Ball was a delicious helping of food for thought.

Then came Waterbaby Bagatelles.  I was lost in this piece, literally drowning in everything there was to take in.  The stage was starkly lit in blue, and hanging from the ceiling were rows of fluorescent tube lights, much like in an aquarium, except this was a sad aquarium without a hint of environmental enrichment.  In that sense it’s hard to say what the dance was about, other than imagery and feelings invoked by water.  You had some dancers dressed as swimmers (shirtless guys and women in more modest bathing attire with swim caps) but then you also had more animal-like movements, like Carla Körbes and Batkhurel Bold’s eely pas de deux.  There were also bodily illustrations of water itself, with dancers appearing and receding like waves or pirouetting in swirling eddies.  Even more amusing was when they would vibrate their entire bodies, which you might think would seem out of place, but if you think about bubbles rising to the surface, it’s not a smooth trajectory…they sort of flutter as they wiggle their way upward.  I had to let go of trying to decipher excessive meaning in the piece because if I held on, I’m pretty sure my brain would have exploded when the company broke out into a tango.

Overall, quite an interesting evening…and by interesting I mean intense.  I can’t stress enough the seamlessness of Tharp’s choreography, which can actually be quite taxing, but beautiful in its potency.  I leave you with PNB’s video of images and clips from All Tharp in the hopes that my descriptions of her work do the real thing justice.

And now back to the regularly scheduled programming…Swan Lake Month…